Dominican sisters educate struggling child laborers in Vietnam slums

Sr. Mary Dang Thi Thu Hanh is a member of the Dominican Missionary Sisters of Phu Cuong based in Bien Hoa City, capital of Vietnam's southern province of Dong Nai. She has worked at Binh An (Peace) Development Center for eight years. In this photo, she teaches math to a third-grader. Her class has 33 students aged from 8 to 14. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — Thach Dat, an 11-year-old ethnic Khmer boy, used to work all night picking up fish dropped onto the ground by fishmongers in Binh Dien Market, then sleep in the daytime in a makeshift leaf hut near the market with his parents and five siblings.

The marketplace lying near Cho Dem River is located on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the former South Vietnam capital of Saigon. It supplies raw foods wholesale to small marketplaces throughout the city. 

That Thach Da's life was before the Dominican Missionary Sisters of Phu Cuong persuaded his parents to let him attend school to learn to read. He is now in the second grade at the nuns' Binh An (Peace) Development Center in District 8 of the city, dreaming he will grow up to be a police officer.

Dat was once among the nearly 2 million illiterate people in Vietnam, according to 2017 education and training ministry statistics. Only 3 percent of those people ever get a chance for basic education. Now he is one of them.

The Dominican sisters, whose mother house is based in Bien Hoa City, capital of Vietnam's southern province of Dong Nai, have run the Binh An Development Center in Ho Chi Minh City's District 8 since 2010. There they provide free education for 316 children, ages 5 to 15. The students are in 10 classrooms taught by three sisters and 10 teachers Monday through Friday.

Ethnic Khmer Thach Dat, 11, is in the second grade. He picks up fish that has fallen on the ground during transport or left over at night from sale at a local market. He earns 100,000-200,000 dong ($4.30-8.60) a day. His parents gather used plastic bags at the markets in Ho Chi Minh City and cash them in for money. Dat's five brothers and sisters are illiterate and work in other places. He wishes to be a police officer in the future. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
People trade vegetables and roots in the daytime at Binh Dien Market, one of Ho Chi Minh City's two biggest markets that supply raw foods wholesale to small markets and shops in and around Vietnam's commercial capital. The market daily attracts thousands of migrant workers who have no vocational skills. Thousands of merchants, goods carriers, transporters, motorbike drivers and others work at night for a living. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)

After classes, students sell lottery tickets, deliver goods for people shopping, retrieve leftover raw foods for resale, such as fish, shellfish, vegetables and other produce at the markets, or find some other kind of work to make a living. Some simply stay outside their shelters with little to do.

These children are from domestic migrant families who struggle to eke out a living. Many sell fruit and other food on the streets, collect used items and carry goods in the markets at night for both customers and vendors, or they do other jobs as day laborers.

Many live on boats along the many rivers and streams, while others live in remote areas because they cannot afford to rent shelters. Some stay in rented shanties made from leaves. Many gather to live in illegal spots near garbage dumps or streams and are regularly forced by authorities to move out. Authorities do not allow people to live in places that are polluted or have no electricity, roads or running water.

They are in extreme poverty and because they live in polluted areas, their health is often compromised. Some abuse and sell drugs to get by.

Families, some with numerous children, have migrated from the Mekong Delta, about a four-hour drive away, and other southern provinces such as Ca Mau, Soc Trang and An Giang, where they had no jobs and no land for cultivation.

Parents are poorly educated or even illiterate and pay little attention to their children's schooling. Instead, they prefer the youngsters work to support the family.

The Dominican sisters encourage parents to allow their children to take free classes, offering them food, clothes, money and scholarships. The nuns also help them pay off loans from moneylenders, and they give them money to open small businesses. The Dominicans also offer to take sick family members to hospitals and, when warranted, provide coffins to bury their dead.

The sisters work with local administrators to prepare personal papers for students so that they can enter public secondary schools after they finish studies at the center.

Pham Kim Ngan, left, has three siblings in the first through third grades who are studying at the Binh An Development Center. Hanh helped eight of Ngan's 12 siblings obtain birth certificates. Her father supports the family by making shoes, but her mother has abandoned them. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Children play games on a street in front of the center. They wear school uniforms provided by the nuns so the children are treated as well as their public school peers. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)

Many students now study at the eighth-grade level at public schools, thanks to the nuns' efforts.

In 2017, Vietnam recorded nearly 2 million illiterate people, only 3 percent of them having attended basic education courses, according to Education and Training Ministry statistics. The numbers for basic education are low mainly because authorities in provinces such as Tuyen Quang, Thai Nguyen and Hoa Binh failed to persuade illiterate people to go to school.

Dominican Missionary Sr. Mary Dang Thi Thu Hanh visits a woman named Phuong and her children, who live on an old riverboat. Earlier this year, their boat sank into the Cho Dem River and their belongings were destroyed. Phuong and her husband work at the market at night. Hanh encourages the children to take classes at the center. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Hanh visits two kids from another family who stay home with their mother in a remote shelter. On her first visit, she tries to make friends with them and persuade their mother to send them to the development center. Many migrant workers live in poverty and cannot afford to send their children to public schools. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Hanh, a social worker, hands out candy and plays with the children of migrant workers who live in slums on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. She pays travel costs for those who live in remote areas so that they can attend classes at her center. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Nguyen Van Phuong, father of three, classifies and cleans used plastic bags on the riverbank before reselling them to vendors to make a living. His family lives on a shabby boat on a polluted river. His children study at the center. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Hanh visits a woman who chops vegetables she gathers from the streams and sells them at market to support her family. Hanh offers the family clothes and food to survive. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
A scruffy boat sheltering a three-member family lies on a polluted stream. The boat is the home of a couple who has one son studying at the nuns' center. Hundreds of migrant workers live in such shelters because they have no money to rent decent houses. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)
Migrant families live in broken down boats or small leave huts on the banks of a river in District 8 of Ho Chi Minh City. They are from Mekong Delta provinces and, having no land for cultivation, they seek jobs in the city. (GSR photo/Joachim Pham)

[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report, based in Vietnam.]